Purdue study to look at persistence of women in engineering

October 5, 2015  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A three-year Purdue University study on the challenges women in engineering face has earned support from the National Science Foundation.

The study, "Why We Persist: An Intersectional Study to Characterize and Examine the Experiences of Women Tenure-Track Faculty in Engineering," received $1.4 million in funding from the National Science Foundation earlier this month.

Monica Cox, an associate professor in the School of Engineering Education, is leading the project, joined by fellow School of Engineering Education assistant professor Joyce Main and Ebony McGee, an assistant professor of diversity of urban schooling at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College.

Cox said the three-phase study intends to delve into the reasons women continue to push forward in faculty engineering positions. It will examine situations in the context of race and class in addition to gender. Within this study, the team will focus on the stories and experiences of women faculty in engineering, including the positive aspects regarding what motivates them, how they navigate academia and how they define and achieve success. 

"We think by understanding more about persistence it will help from a policy perspective to understand what women in the academy are doing to succeed collectively as well as individually," she said. "How are different female engineering faculty engaging, and how are they overcoming traditional barriers that some women in engineering face?"

In the initial phase, statistics from tenure-track female faculty members at as many as 350 large and small accredited engineering institutions through an American Society for Engineering Education database will be studied for trends.

From that, any developing trends will be examined in future phases. Cox said a national survey exploring issues of race, class, and gender among women faculty in engineering will be created, and interviews will be conducted with women of color faculty members to discern any identifiable factors in their continuous pursuit of engineering.

The second phase of the study will take particular interest in the experiences of women of color who are uniquely situated at the intersections of race and class, said McGee.

"This will allow us to further delineate how racism and classism manifest within academia and how women persist in the face of these structural barriers," she said. "Furthermore, we will be able to better identify institutions that are sensitive and proactive to challenges associated with race, class and gender versus institutions that are limited in their understandings of these constructs.”

Cox said situations such as finding many women of color in leadership positions at an institution could prompt further investigation.

"We might want to see what is going on there and how the women's stories are coming into play in relation to their persistence and their success," she said.

"By understanding women's stories, we anticipate others can be motivated to learn about and try some of the strategies that may have worked for others," Main said.

Putting together the data and firsthand accounts in the third phase, Cox said, will offer insight as to what prompts women tenure-track faculty to persist in engineering.

Main said the study's information can be presented to administrators and policymakers as a tool for shaping national education and institutional policies in the future and help alleviate any barriers that women in engineering faculty face.

"Knowing what the positive motivators are helps," Cox said. "It shows that you don't have to be at a particular place to be successful." 

Writer: Brian L. Huchel, 765-494-2084, bhuchel@purdue.edu 

Sources: Monica Cox, 765-496-3461, mfc@purdue.edu 

Joyce Main, 765-496-6052, jmain@purdue.edu 

Ebony McGee, 615-322-8100, ebony.mcgee@vanderbilt.edu 

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